Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
You may have heard the story by this point. Marvel’s strict, TV-esque approach to their movies, which restricts total creative freedom from their directors in order to for every MCU movie to cohesively fit into the wider universe has pushed away a few filmmakers in the past, but none as notable as Edgar Wright, the acclaimed director who exited Marvel’s latest superhero movie, Ant-Man, due to creative differences last year. With Wright having developed the movie for almost a decade beforehand, it seemed as if Marvel had a calamity on their hands…
As you might have read by this point, Ant-Man is far from a calamity. It’s a movie that couldn’t have been released at a better time – with Marvel’s previous effort, Avengers: Age of Ultron, dialling up the scope and stakes with a huge array of characters, an awful lot of globe-trotting and a finale where half a country was levelled, Ant-Man sees Marvel flip the switch the other way for a decidedly different superhero movie. Certainly, the intent behind Ant-Man is admirable and impressive – displaying a good amount of self-awareness from the company, Ant-Man sees the behemoth studio send up some of their own tired clichés (such as the traditional demolition derby third act) in numerous ways. There’s certainly room for the aforementioned bombastic, high-ambition blockbusters with an enormous array of superheroes, but a palate cleanser was certainly in order at this point – and that, in a nutshell, is exactly what Ant-Man is. This small scope and limited ambition makes it far easier to become engaged in the central emotional conflicts of the movie, with the smaller scope allowing Ant-Man to keep its focus tightly on the characters even in the midst of the numerous CGI action sequences, allowing for greater emotional investment and a stronger and more meaningful payoff when it comes in the third act.
Of course, none of this would be true if the dramatic meat of the movie didn’t work – thankfully, it mostly does. Admittedly, Scott Lang and Hank Pym’s separate conflicts with their families are painted in broad strokes, with no real room for nuance, but Ant-Man compensates for that by clearly and distinctively providing an interesting parallel between Lang and Pym’s desire to protect their daughters and reunite their families. The movie doesn’t just provide two identical situations and call that a parallel either – Lang’s arc focuses on his attempts to become deserving of his daughter’s affection, whereas Pym has to reclaim the relationship with his daughter that he lost a long time before. It’s a strong storytelling choice that elevates the pair’s mentor-mentee dynamic, and shapes Ant-Man into one of the most emotionally resonant movies Marvel have produced.
Unfortunately, what could have been one of Marvel’s very best movies is pinned back from reaching greatness by a few persistent issues. The choice to focus the first act entirely on character development and drama is an unusual one, and whilst it does help to give the action later on a greater emotional weight, Ant-Man’s dramatic elements just aren’t strong enough to hold the first act up. There’s some great character moments in there such as Hank Pym’s slow reconnection with his daughter, and efficient storytelling that confidently and deftly establishes a reason for Scott Lang to become the Ant-Man in an original manner, but the first act is marred by often patchy scripting. There’s far too many exposition dumps – none of the backstory or mythology is revealed in an interesting or organic manner, so there’s numerous moments when the movie slows down entirely for a momentum-breaking lecture; too often, Ant-Man fails to show rather than tell, which leaves the first act as a bit of a slog at times. In addition, some of the drama between Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne becomes tedious and overwrought later on – for a movie that’s often light and subversive; it’s occasionally far too melodramatic for its own good.
However, once Scott Lang begins his training, almost everything clicks into place. Some of the issues mentioned above creep in at times, but Ant-Man dramatically improves nonetheless once the necessary introductions are out of the way. A midway fight scene is a clever and hilarious way to link into the wider universe in an organic manner, and the decision to bring Lang’s three criminal friends into the job is one that yields some of the best comedy in the movie, mainly from Michael Peña’s Luis (one extended gag involving a lot of characters voiced by Peña particular is an early highlight). Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross aka Yellowjacket is a better-than-average villain – Cross, like most Marvel villains, isn’t particularly fleshed out, but Stoll manages to convey Cross’ heartbroken fury at Hank Pym well enough that the usual villainous issues don’t feel as prominent here (and the movie actually provides a decent reason for Cross to go insane in the final act).
Yet after the extremely enjoyable training sequences, Ant-Man kicks it up another notch for a third act that’s surely one of Marvel’s strongest so far. Ant-Man’s shrinking abilities are impressively portrayed, and their effect is exacerbated by the clever ways in which they’re used in the third act, such as a miniature Scott sprinting through a model that’s being torn apart by bullets. Peyton Reed’s direction is solid throughout, with several stylised sequences where the comedic effect is clearly heightened by Reed’s direction, but it’s the miniature sequences where he truly flourishes, delivering action sequences that act almost as a direct parody of Marvel’s destructive third acts. A lot of the best comedy in Ant-Man is visual, and the third act in particular delivers a handful of inspired visual gags – not all of which rely on Ant-Man’s technology (though the jokes that do stem from Pym’s technology got some of the biggest laughs at my screening), ensuring that Ant-Man doesn’t sink into gimmickry, and uses the shrinking powers for equal parts spectacle and comedy.
The finale sees Ant-Man’s inventiveness reach its zenith with a superb final battle between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket that plays with perspectives to show just how small-scale the shrinking action looks from a normal sized human’s view – but it’s also an effective way to resolve Scott’s conflict with his daughter, with Scott’s daughter Cassie effectively linked into the final battle without becoming an unnecessary irritant. There’s a particular CGI sequence right at the end that includes some of the most utterly bizarre and unique visuals I can recall, making Interstellar’s black hole sequences look like a trip to the supermarket, introducing an intriguing new element to the Marvel world that could certainly come into play in Phase Three in a big way – but the CGI sequence is tethered enough with Scott Lang’s emotional conflict that the visuals don’t feel like a gratuitous attempt to provide some extremely weird visuals for a cheap surprise.
Ant-Man is a fairly unique beast in Marvel’s ambitious Phase Two, though it’s surprisingly analogous to the very first Iron Man. There’s a similar structure to the films (though not enough for Ant-Man to be just a retread), but it’s the way Ant-Man, just like Iron Man, prioritises heart and humour linked together by a charismatic and impressive lead actor over a complex and watertight plot with a nuanced and morally ambiguous villain that makes this movie something of a callback to Marvel’s simpler days. Ant-Man is not a vintage entry into the Marvel canon – but then again, it doesn’t really aspire to be that. It’s a simple, enjoyable action heist movie with a strong emotional through-line and likeable, if not complex characters, gently expanding the Marvel universe but generally staying as a movie that’s perfectly enjoyable as a standalone adventure. There are clear, fairly major problems with the movie, such as the aforementioned patchy script and sluggish first act, but Ant-Man is endearing enough most of the time for some of those flaws to be forgivable. And besides, with the behind the scenes drama and late-game reassembly of the script, Ant-Man is yet another Marvel movie that easily surpasses expectations.
Of course, there are the post credits scenes. Marvel have slightly taken their foot off the gas in this regard in Phase Two, with several stingers becoming jokes rather than teasing a future movie. However, Ant-Man sees a return of the exciting teases in a big way, with two post-credits scenes that tantalisingly hint towards Ant-Man’s role in the wider universe and a possible sequel. The final stinger, in particular, is one of the most surprising teasers in years, throwing a curveball at the audience right from the off and teasing a particularly anticipated upcoming Marvel movie in style…